Galaxy Quest Revisited

A friend posted a story on my Facebook page this morning. The story concerned the plans to produce a TV series based on the movie Galaxy Quest. That made me very happy. I loved that movie and chose to use it as the basis for a sermon before Yizkor, the Memorial Service on Yom Kippur.

Here is the sermon which I delivered on Yom Kippur 2007:

SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR YIZKOR 2007

SAYING THE FAMILIAR WORDS

There is no question that for many of us prayer is a meaningful and life affirming, life enhancing and occasionally life sustaining activity.

Spontaneous prayer can bring about a sense of calm, a sense of peace and can give us the personal encouragement to be the best we can be. Whether or not we believe that prayer can actually in and of itself affect the reality of a situation that we face, we feel our prayers have a great impact on our lives.

But all of those benefits can elude us, especially when the subject turns to ritualized, standardized daily prayer.

While gathering in shul on Shabbat morning has benefits and meaning beyond the words we say, there is a problem with ritualized prayer and each and every one of us who ever comes to shul experiences it. For some, it is only an occasional concern. For others it is an overwhelming and sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacle. No matter who we are, there are times during prayer when we feel we are going through the motions, when the words of the prayers seem hollow and meaningless, and when we feel like an actor playing out a scene which does not reflect what we really believe and which seems to be, frankly, a waste of time.

It is a familiar experience for all. No less a figure than Mother Teresa wrote in a recently published letter: “The silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear, the tongue moves” — and she was referring here to prayer -– “but does not speak.” So we are in good company. And it happens to Conservative Jews more often than to others.

Our theology and our philosophy tend to bring into question and doubt, more than for Orthodox Jews, the traditional words of our faith; and yet we are clearly more tied to tradition than Reform Jews. The result is that, in general, we say more words that we have trouble believing in literally. We do not have quite the same level of spontaneity and innovation as Renewal Jews, and we are more reluctant than Reconstructionist Jews to overhaul the traditional liturgy, holding fast to the idea of the traditional hiyyuv, obligation to prayer.

Conservative Judaism occupies such a critical and necessary role in the Jewish community: holding on to tradition and embracing modernity. When it works it is priceless. But when it doesn’t, and it occasionally doesn’t, our ritual does become less meaningful. A little too often, perhaps, we feel like we’re going through the motions.

That’s the problem. And it is real. So, what is the solution?

There are many ways to address this issue, and I mentioned some last evening in a different context: we need to understand the concept of obligation more deeply, we need to find ways to connect ritual to our lives; we need to expand our spiritual horizons as we expand our communities; we need to learn more Hebrew; we need to learn to bring God into our lives and into our vocabulary so that these words take on more meaning, and we do need to do more to bring innovation into our prayer without violating traditional norms.

Those are all long-range solutions.

But, while we seek to change our attitudes toward prayer by considering all of those different points, I want to look at the problem in a different way this morning. I’d like us to consider that maybe it isn’t such a problem after all. Maybe it is just a reality to be reckoned with and understood. That occasional boredom, the lack of passion, is inevitable and shouldn’t sour us on prayer at all. Maybe it can, in fact, help us to appreciate one of the many and often overlooked purposes of standardized prayer.

In that spirit, I want to share with you a beautiful midrash on prayer and Jewish ritual in general, courtesy of Hollywood.

I love movies with creative story lines and a few months ago, some time in the middle of the night, amid the infomercials and reruns of programs which weren’t that good in the first place, I caught a movie that I hadn’t seen in a few years.

The movie is called “Galaxy Quest” and is about the cast of a cancelled fictional TV show of the same name, a show about a group of space travelers and “good guy” warriors, “Star Trek” if you will. The show had been cancelled but still had a loyal, passionate following. The cast members now spend their time traveling to fan conventions and other gatherings dressed as the characters, uttering their great lines and reliving plot lines from old episodes.

Most of the cast is clearly doing it just for the money; but the main character, played by Tim Allen, obviously takes this very seriously and loves the adulation since he really has nothing else of importance in his life. He plays his part with passion. However, his attitude changes when he overhears people mocking him and suddenly realizes what a phony he is and what a waste all of this is.

He goes home distraught. The next morning, he awakens with a terrible hangover only to be greeted in his home by four people who turn out to be aliens. They have seen what they call the “historical documents,” the episodes of the show which have been beamed into space. They are convinced that the cast members are real space warriors and, based on what they saw in these documents, they believe “Galaxy Quest” crew members are the only ones that can save their planet from destruction by their enemy.

In an obvious stretch of the imagination, the crew accepts the challenge and goes into space. They go for fun, but they quickly realize that real life is different from TV acting. They realize that they are completely out of their league dealing with real space warfare, and confess their inability to accomplish in real life what they did on the stage. But the aliens have no concept of acting, and encourage the crew to keep at it and to take to heart the show’s catch phrase: “Never give up. Never Surrender.” Without any other choice, the crew carries on clumsily; and with one small and unexpected success, those words which sounded so hollow take on new meaning. Suddenly, they gain confidence and begin to see their situation as an extension of the show’s plots. They make all the right decisions, creatively solve new problems and, of course, save the day.

What a great story.

And it is our story.

Yes, occasionally, we are just acting. Occasionally, we are playing a part. The ritual and the prayers do not always mean what the philosophers tell us they mean, they don’t always mean what we tell our children and our students they mean. Occasionally when we come to shul, we are playing the part of a Jew seriously invested in ritual and prayer when we might not be there in real life at that moment.

If that is true, for what possible reason would we continue to play these scenes?

One reason we do — and it is a very critical reason to recognize — is that we continue to play the part because the moment is going to come when it will not be just a play. The time is going to come when what sometimes strikes us as devoid of meaning will suddenly become real, when we will desperately need to connect with the tradition in a meaningful way to be reassured by the presence of God and our connection with the divine. And when that moment comes, if we have rehearsed the part well, we will find the words are there for us, tripping more easily off of the tongue. We will find ourselves comfortable in the synagogue and in the arena of Jewish tradition; and we will be able to access, to our great and lasting benefit, the wisdom and the purpose of our tradition, even that wisdom and purpose which eluded us on those long days of play acting. The long hours of acting suddenly are worth it when the lines help us respond to real needs.

Sometimes those moments are unexpected. They awaken us out of our rote reading of the siddur when a word or a phrase resonates in ways we couldn’t have anticipated even a moment before. And it is those moments that every person who prays anticipates … and believe me, they happen often.

But sometimes, they don’t come “out of nowhere”. Sometimes we fully expect those moments of meaning. With nowhere else to turn, we turn to the words of the tradition and hope beyond hope they will help us confront the experiences in life that are difficult. And they are more likely to help us do that when we have, through long periods of rehearsals (some of them less inspiring than others), learned the words to say.

There are times when these words sustain us as human beings, save us from our enemies, enable us to at least envision a happy ending at times of difficulty. Just the other day, I was speaking with a colleague whose religious faith does not have standardized prayers which respond to specific situations, and he was recalling how difficult it was after the attacks of September 11, 2001 to figure out exactly what to say with his congregation. He envied, he told me, any faith — and Judaism is certainly one — which has structures in place, structures which people are familiar with to respond to situations. And he realized how important it is to have practiced those responses and to be ready to use them.

We all have moments when we need them. And, of course, the most obvious moment is when we confront the death of a loved one.

When life demands of us that we rise above the situation we confront and attempt to make sense of it or at least accept it, these words and these rituals are most needed. It is for those moments that we rehearse day after day and week after week.

The words don’t always do the job completely. We know that. We depend also on community, on family and friends to help us through. But the words help point the way.

How different is it to say the words of the Kaddish at the graveside when you know them well enough so that you don’t stumble over them, but you know them well and you understand the meaning they can have.

How different it is to walk into this room for a funeral, knowing you have been here so many times before. It might make it just a small bit less difficult to face the horrors of the death of a loved one when you are on familiar ground.

And, as one who has said the Shema with or for a person who lay dying, I can see clearly how much peace it can bring at this time of transition both for the individual and for the family, how it can reach through layers of confusion or unconsciousness or sadness and reach deep into a person’s soul … but not if the words are foreign.

So much of the practice we do is for moments like those when we confront our greatest enemy: the enemy of death. The words are our weapons against despair and loneliness. They are our support, and being trained in their use will make them more effective.

But that is only half the story.

The practice is not just for moments when we confront death. It is for moments when we wish to address the happy times of life as well.

So many of our prayers are about the glory of creation; we say them quickly and move on. But what happens when we say Baruch Sheamar, the hymn to God as creator, while standing on a mountaintop watching the sunrise? Suddenly it isn’t just a script, it is a real thought coming from the heart.

Think about the psalms we say that talk about God’s protection. If we have felt that we have been saved from a difficult situation, how different those words suddenly sound.

The day we become engaged to be married, the day our children are born, the day we celebrate a significant birthday or anniversary … each of these are moments when the rehearsed words suddenly mean something, and that meaning justifies every moment we spent thinking we were only play acting.

Every time we say Yizkor, I begin with the reading that we will say in a few moments: We remember them.

The reading by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Rabbi Sylvan Kamens should be familiar to you:

At the rising of the sun and at its going down

We remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter

We remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring

We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer

We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn

We remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;

for they are now a part of us

as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength

We remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart

We remember them.

When we have joy we crave to share

We remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make

We remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;

for they are now a part of us

as we remember them.”

As you look at this reading, ask yourself: who or what is the “them?” Of course, it is the people we remember. That’s the p’shat, the intended meaning.

But let me offer you a different meaning. This time read the prayer as if the “them” were not the people we remember, but the words of our tradition, the traditional words of prayer.

At the rising of the sun and at its going down, at times of new life and at times of death, we remember the words and find them meaningful. When we are lost and are sick of heart, and when we have joys we yearn to share, at sad times and at happy times, we remember the words and feel the support and the wisdom our tradition has to offer. With the warmth of summer and chill of winter, at beginnings and at endings, we remember the words and they help us accept and find comfort in the cycles of time.

In a moment we will begin Yizkor, and at the end we will say Kaddish. I know you rehearse for this moment. I see you moving your lips to the words of the Kaddish even when you do not have yahrzeit, even when you are not mourning. God willing, your time to use these words as a mourner will not come this year or anytime soon. But when you need to say them, you will say them more easily and they will be more meaningful.

But remember, it is not only at times of sadness, it is at times of happiness as well that we need to find these words more accessible and more meaningful, and we have to look for opportunities to use them.

And we, as a shul, must provide you more opportunities to say them.

And, that brings me to my final comments before Yizkor. They may be a bit out of place and, truthfully, I had thought of sharing them after Yizkor. But now is the time.

I have, together with the Religious Committee, developed a means to help us all find more meaning in daily prayer and, by doing so, solve a very specific pragmatic problem as well: never again should we have a problem getting a minyan in the evening.

Here is the solution: beginning tomorrow evening, we will conclude the minyan not with the mourner’s Kaddish but with the shehecheyanu. We invite each and every one of you to accept the obligation — as you do to say Kaddish when mourning or at yahrzeit — to come to the daily minyan either on the day of, the day before or the day after your birthday, the birthday of your child or grandchild, your anniversary, the day you recovered from a serious illness, whatever it might be. We ask you to come to minyan on the happy occasion just like you come at a time of sadness because those moments, too, are the ones you rehearse for. Those moments, too, are the moments when the words make more sense. Those moments, as much as the moments of sadness, are the moments prayer was made for.

And what we all will find is what we find again and again and again: when we daven in community and there are those for whom the words are personally more meaningful, that sense of meaning is contagious. It helps us all believe that we, too, can find the meaning in the words we say.

When you say Kaddish, we too think about our loved ones. And when you say shehecheyanu, we too will think about how much we all have to be grateful for. And suddenly, the words will become more meaningful for us as well.

Yes, there are many other things we could do with the time every day or on Shabbat evening or morning. And I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that sometimes staying home and reading, engaging in some Shabbat-appropriate act of loving kindness, or just taking a walk and enjoying the beauty of this world may be a reasonable choice to make instead of coming here. But that doesn’t negate the power of what we do here each and every evening and each and every week. We come here because at every moment these words have meaning, whether actual or potential, present or future; and that is why we need to keep saying them. They need to be said constantly, for in that way we can be sure that they will always be there to bring us meaning when our lives will be changed, our challenges met, the moment elevated when we remember them.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Galaxy Quest Revisited

  1. Sarr Blumson

    Thank you for the chance to hear this again. I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot lately; from a different direction but one for which Galaxy Quest is also relevant. When we pray, who is the audience.

    I was watching The Tempest at a Shakespeare in the Arb production a few years ago, and I realized that even though I wasn’t hearing the actors deepest sincere feelings I very much preferred hearing Shakespeare’s words. And that a lot of contemporary discussion about prayer is a discussion about what’s “meaningful” to us and not what’s meaningful to G-d. And I wonder whether that’s backwards.

    As you can probably guess this view is somewhat controversial in my house. 🙂 And this is the first time I’ve tried to express it to anyone outside my house. I’m hoping the Hartman class this fall will be a chance to talk about it.

    thanks,
    sarr

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